In early November, after an ardent 10-year pursuit, we installed in our Grand Portrait Gallery William Wetmore Story’s masterpiece Saul under the Influence of the Evil Spirit.
Recently installed in West Building: William Wetmore Story, Saul under the Influence of the Evil Spirit, modeled 1858-63; carved 1864-65, marble with original base in three sections, Gift of Anne Faircloth and Frederick Beaujeu-Dufour in honor of John W. Coffey
Who was Saul?
The life of Saul is one of the great tragic and perplexing stories of the Bible. As recounted in the first book of Samuel, Saul was chosen by God to become the first king of the Israelites. However, his disobedience turned God against him, and thereafter “an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.”
Terrified, his courtiers summoned David, a young shepherd who was renowned as a musician. David’s harp playing pleased the king and temporarily quelled his turbulent mind. The Bible notes that after hearing David play, “Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” However, instead of depicting this moment of catharsis—the king released from his suffering—William Wetmore Story looked for the most dramatically fraught moment. To a friend, he wrote:
I have represented [Saul] at the moment when the evil spirit is upon him and David is called to play to him. The action is all interior—the struggle of a half-demented soul; one hand clutching his beard and one fumbling at his dagger.
This is a portrayal of Shakespearean intensity: a tormented king, a biblical Lear.
Though Story’s conception of Saul generally conforms to the biblical narrative, he also drew inspiration from a poem by his close friend Robert Browning, the most celebrated English poet of his generation. Browning’s dramatic monologue “Saul,” published in its final version in 1855, reimagines the king’s story from the point of view of David. Summoned to the royal tent, the young man is warned of the king’s struggle with a malevolent spirit:
For out of the black mid-tent's silence, a space of three days,
Not a sound hath escaped to thy servants, of prayer nor of praise,
To betoken that Saul and the Spirit have ended their strife,
And that, faint in his triumph, the monarch sinks back upon life.
David enters the black tent and finds the king “blackest of all … drear and stark, blind and dumb.” Amplifying the biblical account, Browning’s image of the afflicted tyrant—“drear and stark, blind and dumb” who “sinks back upon life”—fixed itself in the sculptor’s mind.
Story almost certainly expected that the viewer would be familiar with both the biblical story and Browning’s poem. He therefore complicates our position. Are we merely spectators to the turmoil of a demented old man? Or are we stand-ins for David, face-to-face with death, singing to calm the king’s murderous rage?
To be continued…
John Coffey is deputy director for research, the Jim and Betty Becher Curator of American and Modern Art, and curator of Judaic art at the NCMA.
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